Rugby Union: French victory rocks the unintelligible brotherhood

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The Independent Online
OF COURSE, there was more to it than renewed faith in traditional flair and imagination but the manner of a remarkable victory that took France past New Zealand into Saturday's rugby World Cup final was a timely shock for the coaching fraternity.

It is asking too much that a process of unlearning will now take place in sport, that the fan, bombarded with so much unintelligible nonsense by the brotherhood through the media, may rebel, and tune out. Gradually, however, it may be sinking in that nobody knows what is going on out there.

When coaches bang on about pride, character, emotion and momentum all the time, it begins to dawn on sports watchers that perhaps they are dealing with performers who are as confused as they are. As the preacher said, many attend, few comprehend. But innocence is its own reward and a state to be devoutly wished for in the present circumstances.

Recently, a former rugby international of great renown watched an interview with Jeremy Guscott that utterly contradicted the centre's reputation for aesthetically pleasing endeavour. "The terminology Guscott used was like a foreign language to me," he said. "Coming from such a naturally gifted footballer it was disappointing. That's the way sport has gone. Jargon and more jargon."

We have to be careful here. Flair for flair's sake is a self-defeating indulgence that has held back the careers of many games players. But it remains a great question whether the quest for collective improvement in sport can be justified if it leads to the suppression of individuality.

On the bemused faces of the All Blacks at Twickenham last week was the realisation they were coming up against factors that hadn't been written into the play-books. Trouble is that the coaching brothers shroud their sweaty craft in mystery to create the impression that sport is an art so involved and technical, so profound and esoteric as to be removed from ordinary understanding. Most professions and clans have their own special language. The medical profession talks one tongue and the stock market another. This private lingo serves as a stockade, giving insiders a cozy sense of belonging, mystifying outsiders and keeping them on the outside.

Being thrown into contact with coaches corrupts the language of reporters. Eager to crash the inner circle and prove themselves in the know, they borrow the jargon and employ it in tones of arrogant authority. This establishes them as experts at a frightful cost to readers and listeners.

No wonder that Bill Shankly once rounded on a television interviewer who had dared to suggest that Liverpool might find it difficult to cope with the subtleties they were bound to come up against when launched on their first European adventure. Later, in retirement, Shankly was asked for the secret of football. "First, players who can control and pass," he said. "Then, don't let attackers turn and if they do track them down quickly. Never run the ball out of your own penalty area and support the man in possession." Surely there was more? "Jesus Christ," came the reply, "what more do you want?"

A couple of weeks ago, Jack Charlton was invited by the Football Association's director of coaching, Howard Wilkinson, to address a gathering of coaches held at Wembley. After hearing Charlton speak about the principles he successfully employed as manager of the Republic of Ireland, one listener said, "You may not have agreed with Jack's method of play but in keeping things simple he made a great deal of sense."

In so far as the procedures of instruction keeps coaching staffs occupied, alert and off the streets at night, and in so far as it convinces the students that their mentors are working hard and concentrated, they are harmless and occasionally beneficial. The problem, as France proved last week, is that game plans contain the seeds of their own destruction.

As for jargon, one of the questions put many years ago to aspiring coaches at Lilleshall was why did British footballers appear to lack environmental awareness. A South African hell-raiser, Alf Ackerman, who turned out for a number of clubs in Scotland, wrote, "Because they didn't get enough meat during the war."